By John Long
I spent Sept. 1 camping with my family at a state park. It was a weekend of relaxation and fun — swimming, hiking, cooking unhealthy food in a Dutch oven over charcoal. It also happened to be my son’s eighth birthday; good cause for family celebration.
But I did take some time to ponder that it was the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, as usually reckoned with the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.
Sept. 2 this year was Labor Day; I spent that day avoiding anything that seemed like actual labor. But again, I took some time to remark that the day was the 74th anniversary of the end of WWII, as marked by the formal Japanese surrender.
Back-to-back anniversaries…it inevitably happens every year for the WWII buff. Sept. 1 tends to be followed pretty closely by Sept. 2 on any given calendar. But since this year both dates coincided with a day of leisure for me, I ended up mulling the significance. What did it mean? How did the import of those two days — Sept. 1, 1939, Sept. 2, 1945 — impact me and my family?
I’ve always existed, of course, in a world indelibly shaped by the Second World War. Growing up I gave little thought to the fact that there were WWII veterans all around me —my dad, my uncle, men at church, several neighbors, my first boss. I didn’t think much about it. I just took it for granted. My childhood awareness of the war was largely limited to what I learned from Hogan’s Heroes. I’d love to go back and ask a few questions.
What made you want to put on that uniform? What did you think was at stake? What do you think it all meant? As an adult I’ve had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of veterans and interview dozens, so I think I do a better job of putting it in perspective now.
No one went to fight the biggest war in human history with me or my family specifically in mind, of course. But there we were on our long weekend of leisure, the beneficiaries of their willingness to defend a way of life. We’d decided for ourselves to go camping. Other than securing the necessary reservation, we didn’t report to anyone or ask permission. There was an unspoken reality of freedom that defined our plans.
The whole thing cost us a few dollars. Pretty cheap actually, as a family minivacation goes. But it was our money, which we freely earned, and which we decided to spend for ourselves. We had not only the disposable income but the freedom to spend our few dollars as we determined. Someone else might have thought it was a frivolous waste of time and resources. But that someone had exactly zero say in the matter.
In contrast (and you figured I’d bring this back to those two anniversaries eventually) the enemies those men and women defeated in 1945 stood for power but not freedom; service to the state but not individual liberty.
The defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan did not create anything close to a perfect world, of course. Perfect worlds are not part of the human condition. Nor did it end all threats to freedom.
But that defeat determined that those particular enemies of liberty would not succeed in their diabolical quest for power. It ensured the momentary survival of freedom, for much of the world at least. It created a system, imperfect thought it may be, where my family and I could spend a weekend in the woods and never give a second thought to foes who might want to determine our lives for us.
I pondered all of this as a free man on the 1st, sitting with my loved ones around a campfire, watching marshmallows burst into flame on the end of sticks.
We owe a lot to the men and women — 16 million Americans, millions of our Allies, dedicated workers on the home front — who determined that there was evil in the world in 1939 or 1941, and that that evil simply had to be stopped, even at the risk of millions of lives and enormous expenditures of resources. As the great WWII historian Stephen Ambrose put it, “They wanted to be throwing baseballs, not hand grenades, shooting .22s at rabbits, not M-1s at other men. But when the test came, when freedom had to be fought for or abandoned, they fought.”
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.